The most underreported story of the election is that conservative voters provided the margin of victory for President-elect Barack Obama - a finding that has dramatic implications for both Democrats and Republicans.
Normally winning with impressive margins in the popular vote and Electoral College would translate into a governing mandate. Mr. Obama’s victory was not an ideological one, however. The electorate is almost exactly as center-right as it was in 2004. The Bush 2004 voters who pushed Mr. Obama over the top rejected President Bush‘s policies and the GOP, but not conservative principles.
When the Democrats take control of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue in January for the first time in 14 years, maintaining their majority requires that they keep happy the right-tilting voters who changed party support without a corresponding change in belief systems. Even if Democrats hew to a centrist agenda, however, Republicans can win back the disaffected former supporters-but only by convincing the public that they are the true stewards of conservatism.
Voters backed the candidate who ran on change, but they haven’t much changed their views of the public sector. On the fundamental question about the role government should play in society, voters shifted only slightly from four years ago. In 2004, a 49 percent-46 percent plurality of exit poll respondents said the government should not “do more to solve problems.” In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown on Wall Street that the media blamed on free markets run amok, a slim majority of voters, 51 percent, thought the government should do more.
Though the lion’s share of Mr. Obama’s voters wanted more activist government, over one-fifth of his supporters said that the government is already “doing too much.” This smaller group cannot be forgotten as Mr. Obama and his advisors weigh their options for everything from financial industry regulations to an automaker bailout.
Defying conventional wisdom, Mr. Obama’s vaunted ground game only boosted liberal and youth turnout by one percent each of the total electorate. A detailed examination of exit polling suggests that the Democrat’s victory primarily was due to three key factors: 1) some conservatives stayed home, 2) many more conservatives who used to consider themselves Republicans no longer do, and 3) almost one-fifth of Bush 2004 voters chose Mr. Obama, with the biggest defectors being conservative-leaning independents, such as “Security Moms” and Catholics.
According to an election analysis conducted by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, turnout measured by the percent of eligible voters who cast ballots increased by roughly one percent over 2004. Despite the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket, “many culturally conservative Republicans still did not see him as one of their own and stayed home,” explained Curtis Gans, lead author of the study. He also cited dampened GOP enthusiasm and belief in an inevitable Obama landslide as contributing factors leading to lower conservative turnout.
Most conservatives did show up on Election Day, but a significant number voted Democrat. Mr. Obama picked up one-third more conservative voters than Sen. John Kerry, at 20 percent. Self-identified conservatives in exit polling comprised 34 percent of voters in both 2004 and 2008, yet the number who called themselves Republican dropped from 37 percent to 32 percent. In an evenly split nation, the GOP losing 14 percent of its base overwhelmed almost everything else.
On statewide ballot initiatives, voters supported gay marriage bans in Arizona, Florida and California. In Florida, Amendment 2 needed to clear the 60 percent threshold the state sets for amending the constitution, and the measure garnered 62 percent support. McCain lost Florida, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Even on what is presumed to be safe liberal territory, the environment, the electorate did not tilt leftward. As reported on the Wall Street Journal Web site, “Among five major energy and environmental ballot initiatives from California to Missouri, all but one were voted down.” The one that passed, Proposition C in Missouri, encountered no serious opposition.
The ideological composition of the electorate, in fact, was almost identical to 2004. Liberals went from 21 percent in 2004 to 22 percent, and moderates were 45 percent four years ago versus 44 percent. Democrats enjoyed a small uptick in voters who label themselves Democrats, from 37 percent to 39 percent. So while Democrats added some new adherents, most of their new seven-point margin in party ID owes to an exodus from the GOP.
Two key right-leaning constituencies deserted Republicans: security moms and Catholics. Though the media has made the “gender gap” a household term, the more apt classification was a “marriage gap.” Single women were heavily Democrat, and married women leaned Republican. “Security Moms” became the label for married mothers attracted to the hawkishness of the GOP.
Almost 30 percent of the women who voted in this election were married with kids, and Mr. Obama won them 51 percent-47 percent. The same exit poll question was not asked four years ago, but most estimates are that Mr. Bush won that group handily in 2004. The demographic has become a key part of the GOP coalition. Highly respected Republican strategist Michael Meyers, president of TargetPoint Consulting, consulted the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign and the Republican National Committee and he was among the pioneers of micro-targeting and crafting strategies to reach groups such as Security Moms. He says bluntly, “We cannot win without winning married moms. Period.”
Mr. McCain also lost ground among religious voters, but not in the manner predicted. Confounding expectations from this spring, Mr. McCain performed just as well with white evangelical Christians as Mr. Bush did in 2004. Catholic voters, however, shifted in large numbers for Mr. Obama. Mr. Bush won the historically Democratic constituency 52 percent-47 percent four years ago. He did this by winning weekly church-going Catholics by a robust 56 percent-43 percent, while essentially splitting Catholics who attend church less often or not at all. Mr. McCain, on the other hand, roughly split weekly church-going Catholics with Mr. Obama, and trailed badly among less devout Catholics, 58-40 percent.
Falling from Mr. Bush’s 44 percent of the Latino vote to 31 percent clearly hurt Mr. McCain’s figures in the Catholic vote. But that drop alone could not account for much more than half of the loss he experienced overall among Catholics. The bulk of the remaining Catholic voters that switched from Mr. Bush in 2004 to Mr. Obama this year likely came from cultural conservatives, including so-called values voters and Reagan Democrats.
Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, a Catholic who is running for the chairmanship of the RNC, is mounting his campaign on a promise to return the party to its conservative roots. He believes that Republican failures to adhere to conservative principles opened the door for Mr. Obama’s victory. “President-elect Obama seized on this opportunity and won many Americans to his side by promising to deliver on our broken promises,” Mr. Anuzis said in an interview. “Voters expect tax cuts, they expect spending restraint, they expect strong national security, they expect him to respect this nation’s values and traditions and they expect him to restore our economic strength and not strangle it with excessive regulations and government involvement.”
In perhaps his most honest moment of the campaign, Mr. Obama in June told the New York Times, “I am like a Rorschach test.” Unlike most politicians who seek to define themselves sharply, Mr. Obama proudly defined himself as whatever different voters wanted him to be. Accomplishing this feat in a heated election was a tall order, but in governing, it becomes nearly impossible. In policy battles, there are winners and losers because lines are drawn, and sides must be taken.
For Mr. Obama to maintain the coalition that elected him, he needs to come down on the right side of that line more often than most in his party would like.
Joel Mowbray writes ocassionally for The Washington Times.